Books reviewed by SPR reviewers
There is more than one way to conduct a paranormal investigation and, while it will not necessarily be to the taste of those who take enough surveillance gear on vigils to equip MI5, there is much of interest in Michelle Belanger’s book. In particular, it will be of use to those who feel that they are experiencing entities in their homes, and do not know where to turn for advice.
There is much talk of ‘energy’, but Belanger is careful to note that she is using the term as an approximation for what, as she sees it, provides the common ground for both us and ghosts; she refers to energy “as a kind of linguistic placeholder.” This is not a type of energy amenable to instrumentation, relying rather for detection on human psychic abilities, which she insists we all have to a greater or lesser degree (and which can be developed). She admits that it will be dismissed as imaginary by many if an alleged spirit does not deflect the needle on a whatsitometer, but argues that the human being is more sensitive – and much less understood – than our technology, capable of detecting phenomena to a greater degree than an electronic device.
The heart of the book is a series of techniques focusing on developing the ability to interact with this energy in order to deal with spirits, and Belanger provides a step by step guide, in clear language, to the basic principles. Chapters deal with establishing personal boundaries, cleansing a house, understanding the motivations, or lack of them, of spirits, and evicting those that are definitely a nuisance. She also discusses the use of symbols, which she considers useful tools, but contends that what they are is less important than their underlying meanings and the intent with which they are used.
As a device upon which to hang her explanations, Belanger uses a case study format. This shows how an ordinary chap, ‘Irving’, pestered by an infestation of spirits in his house, is transformed with help from Belanger and a colleague from a victim scared of his own shadow, not to mention those in the wardrobe, into someone with the self-assurance to take charge of his situation. The core of the book is about psychic self-defence, a determination not to be intimidated by things that go bump in the night, but rather to understand them, accommodate them where possible, and deal with them firmly when necessary. The stress is on empowerment rather than helplessness.
Ghost hunting groups have proliferated hugely in recent years, often on a commercial basis, but there is no reliable method of assessing their effectiveness. It takes a great deal of faith to trust yourself to strangers solely on their word, particularly when you are in a stressful situation, and although Belanger has designed this book primarily for group use, it will also be of value to individuals with little prior knowledge of the subject who believe that they are experiencing a paranormal situation. Whatever one thinks of the theoretical basis of her approach, Belanger has supplied tools that will give them the confidence to tackle it themselves, and confidence is largely what it is all about.
Where Belanger scores over many of the more nuts and bolts guidebooks is that she takes what is effectively a client-centred approach – and in a sense that includes the ghosts. For her, the person faced with the situation is more than simply part of the investigation, as is so often the case with groups, who can be insensitive to the needs of those that they are ostensibly trying to help. This puts control back into the hands of the victim, and the techniques can be used by those who have varying religious beliefs and who prefer to trust a ‘higher power’, or who have none at all.
The book is free from dogma, and Belanger stresses that there are many variations on the principles she describes. The important thing, as she says, is that whatever is happening stops, and how it happens is of secondary importance. She has wise words for paranormal groups who may seek to impose a particular interpretation on a situation. Given how little we still know about the subject, it is arrogant to assume that a particular view is the only one, and she urges ghost hunters to resist portraying themselves as bearers of THE truth, and to acknowledge that any explanation that they may offer has limitations.
Those spontaneous case researchers who prefer to stick with their instrumentation might still profit from a consideration of the techniques discussed, even if they only consider them to be psychological props. Groups often use mediums whose role is as much social worker as conveyor of information; they provide a narrative that the householders can accept, the unknown becomes known (at least to the clients’ satisfaction), and tension is removed from the situation. Belanger does not talk about the use of mediums because she feels that we all have that ability within ourselves (and she certainly does not agree with the concept of moving spirits ‘into the light’, considering it presumptuous to assume we are the best judges of the spirits’ needs) but the techniques she describes fulfil much the same role of taking the heat out of the situation and giving back a sense of control. And if the researcher gains information in the process, everyone wins.
Amberley have established themselves as a serious force the production of books on paranormal subjects, particularly regional guides, and the five under review here are a random selection of their recent output. The authors are knowledgeable and all turn in enjoyable results. It is a useful exercise to see how they produce such different outcomes from a common brief: some are more successful than others, but together they demonstrate the extraordinary proliferation of local ghost hunting groups in recent years.
The volumes are bound in a standard paperback format, plentifully illustrated, and are attractively produced with matt black card covers. A fault common to them all, however, is the lack of an index, which makes it difficult to find information quickly. Also surprising is Amberley’s failure to list fellow titles in the series inside, which would seem to be basic marketing. Further details can be found on their website.
Haunted Pubs of the South West by Ian Addicoat is the most conventional of the batch, a standard gazetteer containing the usual rather vague stories typical of this kind of book. However, in addition to recounting old tales, Addicoat, president of the Paranormal Research Organisation and a Penzance resident, has included brief accounts from investigations he has been involved in, although the use of mediums tends to increase the amount of unverifiable information.
The result is useful for tourists visiting the area who would like to know a little about the paranormal history of the places they visit, but a major weakness is its organisation. Rather than grouped geographically, the pubs are listed in alphabetical order. That is fine if you are standing outside a pub and wants to check if it is included, but not helpful if you would like to know which establishments to visit in a particular place. So if someone wants to find all the entries for say Princetown, they either have to know the name of every pub, or go through page by page (there are three establishments listed). An index would have been easy to provide and would have increased the book’s usefulness.
Roger Guttridge’s Paranormal Dorset focuses on a smaller geographical area than Ian Addicoat does. Guttridge is not a ghost hunter, but rather a professional and experienced journalist; consequently his prose is rather more polished than that of some of the others considered here. There are no case reports by local groups, instead there is a reliance on previously published stories. Like the haunted pubs volume there is a reasonable bibliography, but none of the other three includes one, which unfortunately gives the impression that their authors feel they have supplied the final word on the subject.
Paranormal Dorset is the briefest of the five, and seems to have suffered from the requirement to produce the typescript within a tight timescale. In addition to standard ghost yarns, topics include UFOs, doppelgangers, fairies, visions, and a couple of fascinating poltergeist cases. One of these is the Durweston poltergeist from 1894-5, and the SPR is name-checked, although referred to merely as “the psychical research society.” The case was investigated by Ernest Westlake of the SPR, and described by Frank Podmore in his essay ‘Poltergeists’ in the SPR’s Proceedings in 1897. Guttridge does not seem to have consulted this account, and does not include Podmore’s conclusion that, “On the whole I think it would be difficult, on the evidence obtainable, to substantiate in this case a theory of supernormal agency.”
Another poltergeist case described is one that took place at Winton, dating from 1981. This too was investigated by the SPR, though it was called ‘The Bournemouth Poltergeist,’ and a report with that title by Cyril Permutt appeared in the Journal in February 1983 (again not cited by Guttridge). Both Permutt and Guttridge use the word ‘retarded’ when referring to one of the house‘s residents, which might have been acceptable in 1983 but certainly isn’t now.
Damien O’Dell runs a group called APIS, the Anglia Paranormal Investigation Society and has produced a substantial volume on Paranormal Hertfordshire. The longest of the set, it is chock full of information, including APIS investigation reports. These are entertaining, but one wonders if they might be too detailed for the general reader wanting to use the book as a guide to the county, rather than learn how groups mount investigations.
There are also, as with the pubs guide, structural problems, as information is scattered. This is most evident with St Albans, “the most haunted town in Hertfordshire” and fifth most in Britain apparently, which has references in varying places but again no index to tie them together. Some chapters are thematic and others focus on a particular place, which makes it difficult to know where to look for a given location. A surprising amount of space is devoted to the events at Versailles in 1901, described in the classic An Adventure, on the tenuous grounds that one of the witnesses, Eleanor Jourdain, was headmistress of a girls’ school at Watford. Overall, though, this is a thorough job with plenty of variety, and is well written.
Michael Hallowell and Darren Ritson are best known for their joint The South Shields Poltergeist, but they have written separate works for Amberley on South Tyneside and the North East of England respectively, though Ritson contributes a foreword to Paranormal South Tyneside. Many of Hallowell’s stories were generated from a newspaper column and suitable photographs were often not available to illustrate them. Instead the book is liberally sprinkled with bizarre “artistic representations” which serve no purpose apart from breaking up the text.
Some of the personal anecdotes from the newspaper are rather weak but Hallowell compensates for this by producing an eclectic mix in a chatty style, with a wide variety of fortean phenomena thrown in, resulting in the type of narrative where if something is unconvincing or has a tenuous link to South Tyneside, never mind, there will be something else along shortly. A number of the items definitely bear only a tangential relationship to the area. Jack the Ripper may have been an unnamed sailor who spent some time in South Shields but the evidence is flimsy, as Hallowell acknowledges, and he does not indicate in what way any connection might be paranormal. A canal boat wasn’t haunted in Tyneside; the family came from there but the mystery occurred while they were navigating the Warwickshire Ring.
Sections on Kirlian photography, premature burial, someone’s dream of the future, and mysterious beasts, to give a few examples, feel like padding. The book might have worked better as a collection of Hallowell’s stories rather than being tied to a geographical location. There are marks too of hurried writing. A description of a near-death experience featuring a gown on a hospital ledge, included with no supporting references, is surely actually about the tennis shoe reported by Kimberly Clark Sharp, which was supposedly seen in just such a position. Precognition is not the same as déjà vu.
Also covering Hallowell’s stamping ground, Darren Ritson tackles the Paranormal North East. He has included a good selection of photographs, though he seems to turn up in a large proportion of them. He also spends quite a few pages recounting autobiographical details, and includes a chapter about Harry Price on the grounds that Price was a key influence rather than for any link he might have had to the region.
There are no historical cases included, rather it is a collection of investigations conducted by Ritson’s North East Ghost Research Team. These are well written and interesting, though they are rather detailed for the general reader, and the heavy use of mediums is contentious. However, anyone contemplating conducting similar research will find it useful to see how another well-established and clearly busy group does it.
To sum up, Amberley are to be applauded for bringing out this attractively produced series, which will surely be popular, but more work needs to be done on the editorial side to maintain quality control, and efforts need to be made to check a natural tendency to regurgitate case paperwork. The general subtitle on the covers - “True Ghost Stories” (apart from on Paranormal Dorset, which for some reason has “Strange Tales But True) - is often belied both by the lack of conclusive evidence, and the wider range of material than just that relating to ghosts which is included. Presumably Amberley will try to cover the entire country, which will be a significant contribution towards documenting our spectred isle.
Here’s a novel novel. J. J. Lumsden has written a story about a parapsychologist investigating an apparent poltergeist, using the plotline as a vehicle to provide serious information, in the form of endnotes, on psi research. The result is entertaining and instructive in equal measure, and will appeal to SPR members as well as the general reader who would like to know more about parapsychology.
Dr Luke Jackson, a professional parapsychologist engaged in pre-sentiment research (that’s endnote 51), is headed to a retirement community just outside Tucson, Arizona, for a flying visit to his grandparents en route to a conference in Hawaii – a choice of destination clearly designed to stimulate numbers applying for post-graduate courses in the subject. Unfortunately, just before he arrives his grandfather dies, causing him to extend his stay in Arizona, and while there he is asked to help out with a problem which is making a local couple consider leaving their home.
They are plagued by spooky manifestations such as strange Indian speech coming from downstairs at night when they are the only ones in the house, writing in the bathroom which appears and disappears, a candle that mysteriously burns down with no human agency, and so on. At a loss what to do, they ask Luke for his advice, so he sets about determining whether the phenomena have a paranormal explanation or not. The plot that follows, although coming to a tidier conclusion than much spontaneous case research, does give an idea of the sorts of problems that the investigator faces when probing what is really going on in a given situation and trying to make sense of what witnesses say.
The result is thoroughly enjoyable, but a problem with interweaving a detective storyline with information on parapsychology is that it affects the flow, made more noticeable by the fast pace of the procedural element. Every now and again the momentum slackens for a Socratic exchange in which a character will ask Luke a question, such as, “Tell me Luke, exactly what does a parapsychologist do?”, or “Spontaneous experiences are common?”, or “So what about healing?” to which he replies with a mini-lecture on the topic.
One learns to recognise the signs, and tends to think, “ah, the science bit, concentrate,” but the extensive supplementary material that elaborates these points is well worth the effort of working through and Lumsden has taken pains to make quite technical information accessible to the non-specialist. Areas covered as the narrative unfolds include testing various aspects of psi in the laboratory and possible explanations, theories of poltergeists, Electronic Voice Phenomena, Near Death Experiences, issues of fraud, and methods used by pseudo-psychics.
Lumsden also takes the opportunity to scrutinise methods used by sceptics, noting where they have been unfairly applied to parapsychology. The book concludes with a lengthy bibliography to enable the reader to follow up particular areas of interest. One puzzle that remains is why he chose to call a supporting character Chet Baker, with not a trumpet in sight.
Lumsden is apparently going to produce a sequel, and there are hooks in The Hidden Whisper that could be expanded. It would be nice to see a series, with educational underpinnings to page-turning fiction, as Dr Jackson examines things that go bump, or perhaps just beep, though whether Lumsden will generate as much interest from descriptions of Luke’s pre-sentiment research as he does from the Tucson Poltergeist is another matter.
A book has recently been published which does something very important very well. The book is Irreducible Mind: Towards a Psychology for the 21st Century, edited and largely written by Edward and Emily Kelly, with chapters by a number of prominent parapsychologists. Its aim is to demonstrate empirically the need for a new philosophical and theoretical framework to accommodate the phenomena of mind and consciousness.
A number of features make this scholarly, weighty (at over 800 pages literally as well as intellectually!) and clearly-written volume very special. It provides a comprehensive review of experimental and theoretical consciousness-related research in the light of its historical context and development, with a deep and wide-ranging philosophical sweep. It is also passionately scientific, both in following empirical evidence wherever it might lead, and in demolishing orthodox fallacies which managed to embed themselves in the current worldview on the basis of dubious empirical and/or philosophical credentials. In fact, much of the book’s argument relies heavily on empirical evidence provided by current research, particularly in neuroscience. However, the book also draws extensively on areas of evidence which tend to be outside the current framework (and that includes paranormal phenomena), often because of the difficulty in finding a place for them within the picture constructed on existing assumptions.
The book is aimed both at specialists and an educated general readership. It will be particularly rewarding for serious readers who try to follow developments in consciousness research and theoretical debates, while not being directly involved in that branch of learning. Readings in consciousness theories often leave one with that dissatisfied “yes, but what about [slot in your piece of evidence] …” feeling, yet unsure whether the problem lies with the theory, or with one’s own lack of expert knowledge. The arguments presented here draw attention to the problem that research in this area is often rich in data but less so in understanding, and throw doubt on the assumption that more of the same data will somehow reveal the full picture. Another feature valuable for the general reader is that the flaws in much of the theorising in mainstream psychology become apparent without the need to refer to what some would regard as “fringe” evidence, i.e. that of experimental parapsychology or subjective human experience, not to mention survival research – although such evidence is given its due weight.
The first chapter gives us a compact history of twentieth-century psychology, from behaviourism to cognitive neuroscience of today, emphasising the inability of these theories to account for many important aspects of mind and consciousness. It is followed by an introduction to Myers, the “forgotten genius”, and his contribution to the study of the mind-body problem. The chapters which follow bring comprehensive reviews of areas either neglected within the current framework of psychological research (such as the influence of mental states on the body, secondary centres of consciousness, near-death experiences and related phenomena, genius-level creativity or mystical experiences), or regarded as “basically solved” (such as memory, where “trace” theories, although taken as axiomatic within the current framework, are shown to be fraught with empirical and conceptual difficulties). The final chapter draws together the arguments running through the book, making a case for the theoretical framework, developed by Myers and William James, in the light of current scientific knowledge, including the more fundamental area of physics.
This clearly presented overarching view of the fundamental philosophical issues which lie behind the conflicting, and often passionately held, attitudes towards the field of psychical research/parapsychology, is an important event for anyone interested in the questions of consciousness, mind-brain relationship, and where the possible answers might lead us.